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911 Systems In Polk, Pasco Counties Strained By COVID-19 Surge

Pasco County released a public service announcement in which Fire Chief Scott Cassin explained demand for care at overwhelmed hospitals is part of the problem.

The head of Polk County Fire Rescue is joining the cry from emergency managers across Florida: the surge of COVID-19 cases is straining the 911 system.

Polk Fire Chief Rob Weech said his staff is responding to close to 400 calls a day, nearly 100 above the average. He told Polk County commissioners this week they are asking the public to think twice before calling for help.

“Certainly, if you have an emergency, stroke, heart attack, accident, fire at your house, certainly call 911. We don't want to deter that,” he said. “But if you have other ways of getting medical care, we need to exhaust those at this time, So that we can we can deal with those other bigger emergencies during this critical time."

As of this week, Weech says 70 percent of Polk County neighborhoods are seeing no delay in 911 response times. Thirty percent are seeing delays of between one to four minutes, he said.

His message reflects one being made across the state as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations soar. Neighboring Pasco County released a public service announcement on Tuesday in which Fire Chief Scott Cassin explained demand for care at local hospitals is part of the problem.

“Many hospitals are at or are over capacity, and ambulances are currently holding patients at hospitals for hours at a time due to a lack of available beds and hospital staff, he said. “This is causing an ambulance shortage across the county and is causing long wait times for our 911 callers.”

He said people experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, such as fever, sore throat or cough, should call their family physician, an urgent care center, pharmacy or the local Florida Department of Health for testing. He also encouraged unvaccinated people to consider getting the coronavirus vaccine.

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Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF.